Space Sunday: tourist flights, landers, moons and rovers

A dramatic shot from the tail boom camera on VSS Unity just after the tail boom has been triggered to its raised “feathered” position to commence the gentle drop back into the denser atmosphere following a flight to an altitude just shy of 90 km (56.25 mi). Credit: Virgin Galactic

On Friday, February 22nd, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity completed a further test flight, its second time in just over two months, and in doing so set itself a new altitude record.

The space plane was released from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier, the VSM Eve at 16:53 UT, some 45 minutes after taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The vehicle’s hybrid rocket moor was fired for roughly one minute, pushing the Unity and its crew of three to an altitude 89.9 km (56 mi), reaching a maximum velocity of Mach 3 in the process. After a successful “feathering” manoeuvre of the vehicle’s tail boom, Unity dropped back into the denser atmosphere and glided back to a runway landing in Mojave at 17:08 UT.

The flight, delayed by two days due to high winds over the planned flight test route, marked the first time the vehicle had carried a “passenger”: Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor. She made the flight with David Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci, respectively the company’s chief test pilot and lead trainer pilot. All three were making their first trips into space, Moses being aboard to provide practical validation and  data on aspects of the customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of “people in the back”. Her presence on the flight was not announced until after Unity had landed.

Beth, Sooch and I just enjoyed a pretty amazing flight which was beyond anything any of us has ever experienced. It was thrilling yet smooth and nicely controlled throughout with a view at the top, of the Earth from space, which exceeded all our expectations.

– Virgin Galactic chief test pilot David Mackay

Moses also kept an eye on the flight’s special payload – four science and technology demonstration packages provided by NASA under the agency’s Flight Opportunities Programme. Three of the packages had been flown on the Unity’s previous flight in December 2018.

Virgin Galactic have refused to indicate how many more test flights will be made before SpaceShipTwo starts carrying fare-paying passengers, although the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson has indicated he hopes to fly on the vehicle in July 2019, possibly to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Speaking ahead of the February 22nd test flight, Mike Moses, president of Virgin Galactic and husband of Beth Moses, indicated that the company is in the “heart” of their flight test regime, and the focus is on expanding the envelope of flights, including their frequency, prior to committing to commercial flights.

VSS Unity touching down at Mojave Air and Space Port. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The altitudes reached by Unity thus far (just over 80 km / 50 mi on the December 2018 flight and now 89.9 km) have caused some to call into question whether or not VSS Unity has really been in space – including Jeff Bezos, who is heading Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic’s clearest rival in the sub-orbital passenger market.

Speaking about his own company’s test programme with their New Shephard launch system, Bezos emphasised the operational difference between the reusable New Shephard rock and its crew / passenger carrying capsule and Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo. The New Shephard is specifically designed to reach altitudes of 100 km (50 mi), somewhat higher that Virgin Galactic have thus far achieved. 100 km is important, as it marks the position of the Kármán Line, broadly (but not exclusively) considered to be the point above which where aerodynamics cease having any real influence over an aircraft’s performance, making it reliant on astronautics. Thus, it is seen by some as the boundary of space.

One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Kármán Line, not yet … We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Kármán Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not. That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.

– Jeff Bezos, New Origins founder, commenting on Virgin Galactic, February 20th, 2019

New Shephard is also in the midst of a test programme that could see it flying passengers before the end of 2019. Pictures is a text flight launch on January 23rd, 2019, the 10th test flight for the system, as captured via video. Credits: Blue Origin via CBS News

However, things are actually not that clear-cut. There is no international law defining the edge of space; for example, the United States – from which both New Shepherd and Virgin Galactic will fly (at least initially in the latter’s case) considers the boundary to be 80 km (50 mi), which Virgin Galactic can clearly exceed.

Further, Theodore von Kármán, after whom the line is named, suggested the boundary could lie anywhere between 91 km and 100 km altitude. The ambiguity is exacerbated by a proposal to set the “edge” of space in international law as the lowest perigee attainable by an orbiting space vehicle – which would place it somewhere between 130 km (81 mi) and 150 km (93 mi), somewhat beyond the capabilities of either SpaceShipTwo and New Shephard, which tends to render arguments about altitude and boundaries a little moot, particularly given the fact that whether at 80-90 km above the earth or at 100 km, passengers on either vehicle will experience the same degree of weightlessness.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: tourist flights, landers, moons and rovers”

A wedding, a saga, tales, poetry and a wild call

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home at Holly Kai Park, unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, February 24th, 13:30: Tea Time with Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes

Following his retirement from active investigations, Sherlock Holmes moved to the Sussex Downs in order to keep bees. However, the gentility of his retirement takes a turn after an encounter with one Mary Russell,  a 15-year-old orphan from the United States  who moved to England to live with her Aunt.

Somewhat precocious, Mary Russell is also gifted with wit and intellect, and without anything being planned, the two form a new partnership, Holmes teaching Russell his trade craft and assisting her in solving crimes, their adventures charted by American writer, Laurie R. King.

For six years the two work together, until 1921, when they deal with the case of A Monstrous Regiment of Women. At the end of that adventure, Holmes and Mary are wed – but the matter was only given passing mention in the story.

With The Marriage of Mary Russell, here recounted in voice Savanah Blindside, Corwyn Allen, and Caledonia Skytower, Laurie King revisits the nuptials between the two in a short story that also helps to fill some of the blanks around the relationship between Russell and Holmes.

A Tea Time Special Vote

In March and April, Seanchai Library will be presenting Sherlock Holmes Greatest Hits for the Sunday Tea Time at Baker Street sessions. BUT – which four stories should they present? A short list of 10 of the adventures completed by Holmes and Watson has been drawn up, but Seanchai fans and supporters have the power to select the final four. Just visit Sherlock’s Greatest Hits, read the synopses of the short listed ten stories and place your vote for your preferred stories in the list. The final four will be selected from those receiving the most votes.

Monday, February 25th 19:00: Hanta Yo: An American Saga

Gyro Muggins reads Ruth Beebe Hill’s extraordinary novel that is either loved or hated – and has certainly proven controversial since its first publication.

Lyrically written, the story is, at its core, a multi-generational saga follows the lives of two Indian families, members of the Mahto band of the Teton Sioux, before and during their first contact with the white man and his “manifest destiny.” Within its sweeping story, Hill attempted to fashion an epic, Native American version of Alex Haley’s Roots.

Allegedly based in part on writings translated from a Lakota Sioux winter account translated by a First Nation Sioux, the story is certainly cohesive and vivid. For those unfamiliar with the lives and rituals of the Plains Indians of North America, it makes for a fascinating and enlightening read.

However, to some in the Lakota, the book is seen as demeaning and misrepresentative – a fact Hill herself finds baffling. Whilst she fully acknowledges the story is a “documented novel” – a fictional story based on actual events – she also notes that she spent some 20 or more years researching Hanta Yo and carrying out hundreds of interviews with representatives of the Sioux, Kiowa, Omaha, Cheyenne, and Navajo tribes, including allowing them access to her manuscript to verify the historical elements from their standpoint.

Event today, in the year of the 40th anniversary since its first publication, Hanta Yo divides opinions. So why not settle down with Gyro to hear the tale first hand?

Tuesday, February 26th 19:00: Selections from Wind on the Willows

With Faerie Maven-Pralou.

Wednesday, February 27th 19:00: Winter Sea in Poetry and Music

With Ktahdn Vesuvino (on stream) and Caledonia Skytower (in Voice)

Thursday, February 28th 19:00: The Call of the Wild, Part 2

First published in 1903, The Call of the Wild is regarded as Jack London’s masterpiece.

Based on London’s experiences as a gold prospector in the Canadian wilderness and his ideas about nature and the struggle for existence, The Call of the Wild is a tale about unbreakable spirit and the fight for survival in the frozen Alaskan Klondike.

With Shandon Loring. (Also in Kitely